Pokemon Go in Lugano?

An interview with Virtuale Switzerland on the latest trends in public space.

RSI: What is the Virtuale, actually?

VS: The Virtuale is a festival for urban space that combines the fruit of today’s mobile phone technology and contemporary digital culture.

The festival began in 2014 with a grant by Pro Helvetia, which was given to present the festival in four cities across Switzerland. In 2014, it was presented in Basel and in 2015 in Lausanne along with a dedicated exhibition for the Rolex Centre on the EPFL. For 2016,  Lugano was chosen and  the Virtuale presented artworks along the lake at its ports as well as throughout the city.

With the Virtuale we are interested in promoting new forms of art, challenging visitors with the completely unexpected – a museum on their own phone!  This of course is thanks to the use of new technologies that allow for a new dialog between the artworks presented and the characteristics of the city they are being presented in.

Screen shot of Will Pappenheimer’s “Dose” along Lugano’s shopping paradise, Via Nessa

RSI: So, is the Virtuale similar to Pokémon-Go?

VS: There are some similarities and there are many differences between the Virtuale and Pokémon-Go. First off,  the Virtuale offers a varied collection of  location based artworks that use augmented reality and are free to view, whilstPokémon-Go is a free location based game application that uses augmented reality game to engage visitors in typical game strategies.

From that point of view, both have some things in common, however the Virtuale is not a commercial undertaking and our goal is not just to entertain people with gaming, but to provide a sense of wonderment for human creativity and to accent  the cities landscape.

Also, many people have mixed feelings about Pokémon-Go. It seems troublesome as a participatory event ,  because as a game played in open space, players become over absorbed in the game and tend to be a menace to pedestrians and to themselves, running into people and things while playing.

In comparison and to better understand the approach to AR artworks, with any of the works from the Virtuale, people are never removed from reality, because the integration of the outside world is an integral part of the experience of viewing the works. People are not only viewing what is virtual, but also what is real. It the combination of both and their synergy that makes the work successful.

The relationship between the work and where it is placed has been developed carefully over time by many of the artists working with Augmented Reality. This has become integral to the genre and with each new work produced, the foundation of it strengthens. Outside of a general  association to the elements,the 151 figures used in Pokemon Go bare no further meaning to the place at which they are positioned.

A Screen Shot of a Pokemon Go Session in Lugano.

RSI: What is the artistic vision that drives the festival’s content and programming?

VS: It is a very unconventional festival and one that  lets us be inventive with content while not being confronted with the issues that most festivals. Content wise, we have to create and program for new technologies and this automatically forces you to find innovative solutions which includes all steps in the process from project development to marketing and documentation. For example,  we are interesting in presenting very, very large works that are too large to be present in a museum, or make no sense to, because they reference a street, a building, or something that is outside of the museum.

Squid object from “Archie” by Nathan Shafer

What is meant by not  being confronted with the issues that most festivals are confronted with, is that there is no transportation or maintenance of works per se and part of the program can easily be adapted and moved to another city with a few lines of code.

We also put a lot of effort into nurturing collaborations between those who market the city, the artists that are to create the works, and the general public who are viewing it. So the works we select or produce must be really accessible to a general audience,  must embrace the interests of those who are responsible for marketing the city, and – the harder task- to be representative of what is actually going on in the arts and technology today.

To sum up our motivation, we are obsessed with the idea of presenting artworks outside of the a museum context to let people rediscover the spaces around them and doing it with today’s technologies and for a large and varied audience.

Basically, the Virtuale puts the audience – like “Pokemon- Go”-  into a game like situation, in which the objects are enhanced by the surroundings. However, in comparison to the game,  the Virtuale offers far more. Visitors are offered the opportunity to interact with artworks in an exploratory manner, engaging people naturally in a creative dialogue with the artwork and the city at the same time.

RSI: What choices did you make in Lugano?

VS: For Lugano. we brought a dozen artists and their artworks to Lugano. A few of the artists are native to Switzerland and the others are from abroad. This can really be experienced by the audience,  because each of the artists choose very different approaches to creating the work and what they want to say in regard to where it is placed.  The variety is impressive.

There are two routes that can be taken to view the artworks. One route focuses of the lake and explores the ports as well as the centre of the lake. Here such as the work as Tamiko Thiel,’s “Lilly Invasion” where huge flowers bloom on the lake as people go across the lake in one of the many ships that bring people from port to port.

The other route goes through the city and explores many of the things the city is know for. With this route, each of the works chosen refers to specific place in the city. On Piazza Dante, visitors can experience a contemporary version of Dante’s hell” with Mark Skwarek’s “Dante’s Inferno”, or enjoy walking along the Via Nasa and experiencing Will Pappenheimer’s “Dose”, which brings visitors on a phantasmagorical trip.

The virtual sculpture installed on Piazza Bernardino Luni immersive visitors into a setting that can be best described as getting stuck on a Science Fiction novel.

The Coming of the Tralfamdorians via the 4th Dimension, The Curiously Minded with Kurt Vonnegut

RSI: Comparing content, how does the works in the Virtuale differ?

The design of figures is a difficult process. Some objects designed as art tend to either have more complexity in detail or conceptual basis. If we compare the squid object created by Nathan Shafer for his work “Archie” with the Pokemon Go figure Psyduck, there are a number of differences as well as similarities. The Archie figure was not created to personify itself to the point of mass appeal, where Psyduck is.  While Archie references the character from William Gibson’s “Spook Country” using diverse media links, the Pokemin figure has no need to make outside reference.

The objects in the artworks tend, even if they are minimalist in style, towards more complexity of the thought behind them and this extends them into areas that roots them into past and present culture. Such references for the gaming figures in Pokeman Go are hardly necessary. Perhaps, for other games, but here it would be distracting or just ignored.

RSI: How can you enter the exhibit?

VS: It’s very easy. Visitors just have to have a cell phone with access to the internet. In the city there are the

posters with QR code and instructions telling visitors to scan them in using a standard bar code scanner which is native to their phones. Once the QR code is scanned in, the work can be opened up with a single click and viewed. So visitors can simply enjoy the city while exploring the exhibition, combing stops at cafes with walks down the streets and up the steps of Lugano city. Also, the exhibitions is absolutely free and the only online purchase you can make is a Virtuale T-shirt.

Also tours are available and anyone who is interested just has to send an email to the Virtuale: info@virtuale-switzerland.org


Virtuale stands for Virtual Biennale and is a Festival for public space using new digital tools not only to view the artworks and to interact with them, but also to design the experience of participation itself.

The program content for Virtuale focuses on the use of public space, mobile communication technologies, and explores the types of audiences found in public space, inventing “playful” new strategies to bring the public into the exhibit as “real” visitors being offered a unique experience.The project encompasses Artworks using Augmented Reality, Urban or Location Based Gaming, and Digital Heritage applications. It is interdisciplinary, bridging areas such as art and technology, digital heritage and tourism, as well as digital culture and art mediation.


Note: The interview was created in response to a request by Radiotelevisione svizzera which took place on 24 June 2016.